Pop culture expressed through media and social networks are fascinating social constructs. In my 25+ years of investing, I have taken a great liking to the media space, specifically what shapes culture and gets people talking. In today’s fast-moving, dynamic media landscape, a number of interesting cultural phenomena are born and amplified, but one platform has recently taken things to the next level: TikTok.
Many startups have successfully leveraged emerging platforms over the past decade, and I recently spent some time on the topic with a few experts in the field: Amanda Cerny is one of the world’s top influencers with more than 60 million followers on the platform. Anjula Acharia manages talent in Hollywood, most notably Bollywood/Hollywood megastar, Priyanka Chopra. And Tim Collins, co-founder of Creed Media, is a preeminent expert in TikTok marketing, having worked with rising stars like Trevor Daniel and Surf Mesa.
Together, we went down the pop culture rabbit hole, discussing TikTok, influencer responsibilities and challenges, and best practices for startups dipping their toes in these up-and-coming services.
As an investor, I always try to stay innovative. In many of my investments, the influence of pop culture opened my eyes to fascinating new paradigms.
For my friend and longtime business partner, Anjula Acharia, understanding pop culture is a never-ending process:
“My mentor, Jimmy Iovine, founder of Interscope Records and Beats, taught me that you have to anticipate pop culture. You need to keep your ear to the ground, listen to trends, and pay attention to what people are talking about at the coffee machine.”
Anjula Acharia (left). Credit: ELLE Magazine
To keep your finger on the pop culture pulse, you need to try everything and take the time to understand how each ecosystem thrives. Amanda Cerny found herself initially posting on Vine to get the attention of feature film producers but quickly realized she could build her own audience. She followed with Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and TikTok — all promoting different video lengths and audience preferences: “I started realising you need to adjust your content for different platforms. You need to test and see what works and where your best engagement is.”
By building her presence systematically, Amanda organically started getting film and TV opportunities — her original objective — which in turn further amplified her social media reach.
Pop doesn’t just mean media or entertainment, but rather a broad exploration of changes in consumer trends. Amanda is currently one of the most recognised vegans and animal advocates in the world and as such, she’s leading a material pop culture shift towards plant-based living. I led an investment in Stockeld Dreamery, a vegan cheese company, and continue to see a rapid increase in plant-based investment opportunities as the vegan trend continues to move into mass market appeal. Fuelled by influencers like Amanda Cerny or Greta Thunberg, consumers are sharing and amplifying their concerns around the negative climate impact and industrial exploitation of animals, and they are shifting their purchasing behaviour accordingly.
Timothy Collins (left) and Hugo Leprince (right) co-founders of Creed Media. Credit: Creed media
Tim Collins and I met while investigating young creator media spaces in Stockholm and Silicon Valley. Tim and his co-founder, Hugo Le Prince, have honed an expertise in viral artist campaigns on TikTok, and founded an agency with a unique model around it. If there exists a secret sauce to going viral, Tim and his team would know it.
What TikTok offers is a shift from the social graph to powerful algorithms that foster a democratised, almost unlimited, organic reach. Ever since Vine disappeared, the short-form video format space was up for the taking, and TikTok stepped in to claim it. Like Instagram did before it for photos, TikTok integrated editing tools for videos, making it easy for creators to perfect their audio-visual content without leaving the app. When you post, you’re likely riffing off of someone else’s idea; this is one of its key consumer values as it lowers the bar for creating truly great content.
And you don’t need a huge following to gain an audience. The user @420doggface208 went viral with this video, drinking Ocean Spray’s cranberry juice while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” With just a small number of TikTok followers, he was both able to impact sales of Ocean Spray and get Fleetwood Mac to the Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time since 1977. That’s astounding.
According to Tim, this is TikTok’s true differentiation: equality. “It’s the pure incentive of knowing that your content will actually be seen when you’re posting it. If you’re a new user, they give you additional reach in the beginning. With 5 followers, you still can amass 50,000 views in your first video.”
One of TikTok’s keys to success is its authenticity. Brands can’t just plug their products to drive immediate conversion — it doesn’t fit with the platform’s vibe. They can pay for ads, but pushing a commercial message is much more challenging on TikTok than on other channels as the algorithm doesn’t condone it. The power lies in the influencer network, and serendipity. Ocean Spray wasn’t expecting @420doggface208’s video, but they surfed the viral wave and gave the user a truck full of cranberry juice after the fact. His second video wasn’t as much of a hit, but it was still picked up by the press.
For Tim, “brands should look at TikTok as a great opportunity to get a first mover advantage. It’s still very early and there are many different niches that brands have yet to claim.”
Another aspect that makes TikTok so authentic is the open dialogue between customers and brands. Even when something goes awry, it doesn’t have to be a problem; TikTok encourages you to take tough conversations genuinely and head on. Not only does this help you stay relevant, it’s a valuable marketing asset. This makes it a very interesting and promising time for startups, from both a branding perspective and a testing-and-iterating perspective, has Anjula points out:
From social activism to goofing off, TikTok influencers have gone from growing an audience to actually shaping the cultural and political discourse. They are defining the way we transact and interact with brands on massive social media platforms. If impact is a driving goal for any company, as an investor I have to wonder, can one be both an activist and a commercial entity at the same time?
Amanda is a great example. Her authenticity is powerful: she’s a vegan, an animal lover, politically-engaged, and she wants the world to know it. “I think a lot of the younger generations are looking at authenticity. Holding back information, even when negative, mixes poorly with that ideal. Building brands and building companies is very similar to being an influencer, because you’re building a following that is going to support that brand.”
Anjula agrees: “You have to be an activist, because your audience demands it. You have to accept that it might alienate a group of people, but you’ll also win other groups. In a deeply divided era, people want to know where you (as a brand) stand politically; you can’t avoid it.”
In 2020, Twitter and TikTok served as a powerful mouthpiece for the Black Lives Matter movement. TikTok in particular led the charge. How come? Because emotions can’t be fully communicated in some scripted text or video alone, and TikTok provides a more authentic outlet. Tim says “It’s a great place when creators find ways to mobilise and spread messages, because then you can really get a huge force of attention to the communication coming from the platform.”
Authenticity attracts attention. Powerful stances cultivate loyalty. With both attention and loyalty, it’s hard not to imagine a world of potential for companies who do it right.
Like Twitter, TikTok recently introduced labels to be displayed alongside sensitive content. This is a step in the right direction according to Amanda: “It means you’re not silencing anybody, but at the same time you’re providing a sense of caution when consuming the information.”
A related big question is, how much power should we give these tech giants? Speaking from my own experience of Spotify locking horns with Apple, it is clear that the App Store has provided ample opportunities for Apple to use its monopoly against any competitor. I believe big tech shouldn’t have as much power as it wields today and needs to be smartly regulated. If you look at Google, the whole results page is basically a commercial. It’s impossible to get unadulterated, unbiased, unsponsored search results these days. Google has 95% market share in search and there has been virtually no innovation in the field for the last decade. I’m cheering for DuckDuckGo as an emerging competitor.
Facebook is no better. One of my favourite metal bands, Dark Tranquillity, recently told me they can only reach a fraction (5%) of their own audience when they post news on Facebook — unless they pay up. With algorithms changing more and more to favour social networks over their users, artists who have spent decades building an audience can no longer even access their hard-earned fans. They are owned by Facebook.
It’s even more frustrating for creators like Amanda, who make a living from reaching their audience: “I work so hard to create organic content that I don’t get paid for, to grow my platforms, and then I can’t reach them. Whenever there’s an issue like that, there’s an opportunity for new platforms that offer better privacy laws and better access to your audience.”
Institutions and legislators will have a big effect on social media platforms. I believe there will be a push for more antitrust laws and social networks will be treated as media providers. This means they’ll need to take responsibility for the content disseminated on their platforms, not only from a user agreement standpoint like today, but also from an editorial standpoint. I expect we’ll see many more Social Media Editors-in-Chief as the editorial component gains importance in our polarised world. This has the potential to change the social media platform landscape quite dramatically.
It certainly seems like TikTok is onto something. If you’re a startup, take a page from Amanda’s book and try it as well as any other new, buzzworthy platforms. They’re full of opportunities to go viral if you get the content right. Of course, there’s always the chance they’ll peter out or get banned, as TikTok almost did in the US. But it didn’t, and here we are, talking about it.